The education secretary’s first great act in his new job won’t grab the headlines, but the way he’s simplified who is responsible for what in our schools will prove invaluable, writes Mark Lehain
At a glance, Damian Hinds’ various announcements today could seem like mere tinkering. Given the local elections, the mainstream press will probably only report on the funding made available for teacher sabbaticals. We shouldn’t overlook the reforms to teacher qualifications though – they look great and will go a long way to improving the experience of colleagues in the early stages of their career.
The big stuff to me though is what has been announced around school accountability. ‘Principles for a clear and simple accountability system’ sounds like something from an accountant’s textbook, but for the school system this simple three-page document has the potential to be huge.
Well, it’s a serious attempt to clarify some of the confusion that has arisen in recent years regarding who is responsible for what across our schools. We’ve seen massive change in terms of the players in the system, and how they interact: mass academisation and MAT development, regional schools commissioners, headteacher boards, a growing army of advisors and consultants, as well as new measures, floor targets, and categories such as “coasting schools”, not to mention the rolling back of Ofsted.
Just think about how much money and talent can be saved with fewer people duplicating attempts to judge schools
All of this happened with the best of intentions, but it’s not surprising that the accountability got muddied. Heads and governors were faced with a dizzying array of targets to beat and people to keep happy.
Graded ‘good’ by Ofsted but had a dip in results? RSC might come a-knocking and send in some advisors for a visit. Or they might not. Got good results but your last Ofsted said ‘RI’? The local authority might ask for rundown of what you’re doing about it. Or they might not. What if your results were low but on the up? Might you be considered ‘RI’ by Ofsted but a “rapid improver” by the RSC?
Just as every garden needs a good tidy-up at the end of the growing season, so the school system needs to pare back the various targets and players, to give clarity to everyone, and the space for school improvers to get on with their job: improving schools. I think that the principles announced today do a good job of this.
To lay out in simple bullet-pointed terms, over only three pages, exactly how schools will and won’t interact with RSCs and Ofsted is a pretty big deal. No more second guessing; heads will know where they stand and who they’ll be working with.
Also, there’ll be no more “the RSC thinks this but Ofsted says that, and the data suggests this”. It’s explicit that only Ofsted will make judgements on schools. This is excellent news, not least because we still have the eternal question-mark over even Ofsted’s ability to do this objectively and accurately! It has always worried me that others could have a go at this too.
Just think about how much money and talent can be saved if there are fewer people duplicating attempts to judge and improve schools they don’t run. This can now be made available to improve schools from within, instead of from the DfE.
There is more to do to tidy things up. I’d question the ongoing need for headteacher boards given the more restricted role envisioned for the RSC. Also, the proposals still have RSCs commissioning school improvement support that can then be offered to schools that they consider need it. Personally, I’d leave this kind of thing completely to LAs and academy trusts; they’re the ones responsible for running schools. However, the document makes it clear that people can turn down any support offered – so I can live with it for now, I just think any cash used here is better spent by schools.
These are minor quibbles though, especially given that everything else is pretty much what heads and others have been crying out for.
This is the other thing that makes me feel positive about these moves: the government is listening to feedback from the profession. They’re not giving everyone what they want – and they’re definitely not going to deliver the money demanded by some.
But on accountability , workload, Ofsted, curriculum and exam stability, and lots of other areas, it feels as though they are trying to deliver on their promise to reduce pressures where possible, and not make changes that add to the burden of the job. It’ll take time to work through and for people to see and feel the benefits, but I would challenge anyone who said it’s not getting better, or that they’d reverse the direction of travel. Not a bad position to be in however you look at it.
Mark Lehain is the interim director of the New Schools Network and the director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence